Grow Further Holds First Public Webinar, Discusses Global Food Security and Regenerative Agriculture

On January 24, Grow Further held its first public webinar, featuring Africa Food Prize laureate Dr. Ruth Oniang’o. Oniang’o and Grow Further founder Dr. Peter Kelly discussed bottom-up approaches to global food security and regenerative agriculture.

Both regenerative agriculture and bottom-up approaches are somewhat holistic concepts that defy precise definition. Regenerative agriculture often involves practices that increase soil organic matter levels, but the Natural Resources Defense Council defines it as “a philosophy and approach to land management” that “nourishes people and the earth, with specific practices varying from grower to grower and from region to region.” Oniang’o described bottom-up approaches this way: “For farmers especially, seeing is believing. You have to go in there and try to understand the culture.”

Oniang’o offered this sage advice last month when Grow Further hosted a special online public discussion featuring her and our founder and CEO, Dr. Peter Kelly. A special advisor to Grow Further, Oniang’o is a professor of food science and nutrition at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Nairobi and is known for her work promoting sustainable farming in Kenya. She also serves as editor-in-chief of the African Journal of Food, Agriculture, Nutrition and Development.

Our recent virtual seminar with Kelly and Oniango was a huge success—we had to upgrade our technology after seeing the number of sign-ups, and viewers from around the world submitted more questions that we had time to answer.


A round-the-world discussion on food security

Moderator Jennifer Dine kicked things off by asking Kelly what a bottom-up approach looks like to Grow Further. He answered it entails broad goals and efforts toward lifting the ideas of scientists working closest to smallholder farmers. “We seek ideas from agricultural scientists in developing countries, typically a team of both natural and social scientists with innovative approaches to addressing those issues,” Kelly said. He strongly agreed with Oniang’o’s point that smallholder farmers must be engaged early on in the process of developing innovative solutions that fit their needs. “The strongest proposals will almost always engage farmers,” Kelly said. “If you don’t ask you are just guessing and you are probably guessing wrong.”

Dine then asked Oniang’o if she could share with the audience any specific examples of a bottom-up regenerative agriculture success story. Oniang’o confessed that this is a difficult question since “we are still experiencing food insecurity.” She recalled instead her earliest days of working on improving smallholder farming success. Lacking adequate financial resources back then, Oniang’o shared that she found the best approach was to first invest in time spent with the farmers on the ground. This is a good first start, she explained, because you first have to learn from farmers and be willing and ready for the unexpected. “Human behavior is not that easy,” Oniang’o said. “It takes quite a bit of time, investment. You have to have a passion for what you do.

“Be ready for anything,” Oniang’o advised. “Keep your ears on the ground.”


Inspirations and aspirations

Jennifer asked both speakers what most inspired them to set out on their respective missions.

Peter said he was inspired by the way other nonprofits mobilize individuals to fight medical maladies. If this same energy could be harnessed to fight hunger and malnutrition, he said, who knows what the world could achieve? “Grow Further has been inspired by the success of the Rotary Foundation and the March of Dimes, which are grassroots organizations that raised funds and took initiative toward the development of a polio vaccine, and we have nearly eradicated polio,” Peter said, “so if something similar could be done in agriculture, which is what Grow Further is obviously trying to do, then that could make a really big difference in society.”

Dr. Oniang’o said she was inspired by the conditions on the ground in her native country, especially Kenya’s early emphasis on encouraging the cultivation of cash crops instead of the indigenous food crops needed to sustain a growing population through regenerative techniques. The result, she lamented, was widespread hunger. “You could just see that the families were now hungry, the women were struggling to keep food year-round,” she recalled. “There was obvious malnutrition.” Aspiring for better food security for her people, she decided to act, Oniang’o said.

To wrap up the panel, Kelly reminded everyone on the call that there is an open invitation for all of them to contribute to our important work and involve themselves in every step of the process, an opportunity unique to agricultural science philanthropy. He stressed that there is plenty of time for interested and passionate individuals to consider how they might best contribute, as Grow Further isn’t going anywhere.

Kelly also shared his hope that the model Grow Further is pioneering will take off and inspire far more individuals and organizations to join this movement. “Longer term, we cannot do this alone,” he said. “There needs to be an entire sector of agriculture research charities that have a public face that are doing fundraisers in every small town just like we have in medical research in the United States right now. That’s basically what’s needed in agricultural research to really ensure a food-secure future.”


A movement open to all

Kelly and Oniang’o’s broad-reaching discussion was followed by a thought-provoking and fruitful question-and-answer session, whereby the audience was afforded a chance to challenge the speakers and share their input. The questions were engaging and encouraging, showing that the audience paid close attention and was seriously pondering the issues the two experts discussed.

Audience members asked them to expand upon their definitions of regenerative agriculture and how this differs from agroecology. They challenged the panelists to defend their emphasis on overlooked crops like the Bambara groundnut rather than major staples like maize and rice. Audience members asked them about the criteria they used in selecting promising research and new approaches to improving smallholder farming. Many more questions were asked that the speakers simply couldn’t get to in the time allotted, including questions on water scarcity, the impact of conflicts on food security, the effectiveness of donations like free dairy cows, and much more.

No worries—there will be more future opportunities to cover these questions and others that didn’t come up. Grow Further plans to host a series of open discussions with the top minds in food security and nutrition. Through such public outreach, engagement, and active participation we can achieve a more food-secure future.

Oniang’o encouraged everyone to be both bold and patient; solving the world’s food security challenges won’t happen overnight. “It takes time, it takes respect, it takes an appreciation of people,” she said. “It takes making friends.” You can view the entire discussion here.

Meanwhile, Peter reminded our members, the audience, and this newsletter’s readers that we are all in this together. Grow Further’s best days are ahead of us.

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